I grew up in a shophouse. I realized this after living in Thailand when I was teaching and traveling throughout Asia, where business-cum-home arrangements are ubiquitous.
My father, a haberdasher, owned a small, narrow store on Broad Street in the New Jersey town where I spent my childhood. It was called Tip Top Men’s Shop and it catered to the town’s gentry. My mother, father, two siblings and I lived in a railroad apartment above the store. The rooms lined up one in front of another along a claustrophobic corridor. There were two bedrooms so when my brother came along, he slept in the living room. It was a convenient if cramped setup for my parents until they could afford to build a house, and it was fun for us kids, even though living in such small quarters drove my mother mad. Also, we could have done without the Arrow Shirt boxes lining the living room.
My dad held all the franchises that upscale companies like Arrow Shirts offered to only one vendor in a town, so he had no competition to speak of, and having overstocked his store during the war years, he did well into the 50s.
But then things began to change. Franchises were extended to other stores and more importantly, box stores and discount merchandisers began to appear. Customer loyalty waned as a burgeoning bargain mentality developed. My father, driven out of business by these factors, ended up working as a floor salesman in one of those box stores, selling inferior off-the-rack suits and cheap shirts and ties. It was devastating for a man whose self-esteem derived from being his own boss.
By then we had moved to a three-bedroom house a mile from the center of town. And we, too, began bargain hunting and shopping in the stores that were rapidly displacing local merchants and changing the face of our familiar and beloved Broad Street.
It didn’t take long for those box stores to join forces as large and then larger shopping malls proliferated, becoming a developer’s dream. The first one in our area was the Cherry Hill Mall in south Jersey. Everyone flocked there on weekends, to window shop, meet friends and occasionally partake of sales.
Later, when I was living just outside Washington, DC, malls sprung up in Virginia and Maryland. Gradually, they became more upscale. Some of them were huge. Shaped like an elongated letter H, Macy’s might be at one end, Bloomingdales at the other, displacing the original Sears and Penney’s. In between these two giants, a plethora of small boutique shops offered a ridiculous amount of stuff that prospering suburbanites thought they couldn’t live without.
About this time, outlet malls began to dot the landscape, some becoming so popular that chain motels and restaurants built facilities nearby. Some of them were so big they actually had artificial ski slopes or water slides in them. In a booming economy, everyone and every business seemed to thrive.
But then things changed again.
Enter the Internet and the world of Amazon.com. Soon, every store, big or small, was selling online. Customers loved it. UPS and FedEx loved it. Online businesses of all kinds proliferated, and profited.
What didn’t “profit” from this particular economic change was a semi-urban landscape increasingly dotted with deserted strip malls, empty box stores, and desolate super shopping venues. Who didn’t profit were all the people who lost their jobs.
Ironically, as I was contemplating writing this column, economist Paul Krugman wrote a piece in The New York Times on the topic of our changing economy. He noted that a magazine article had just appeared in which a photographic essay addressed “the decline of traditional retailers in the face of internet competition. The pictures,” he wrote, “contrasting ‘zombie malls’ largely emptied of tenants with giant warehouses holding inventory for online sellers were striking.” Krugman also highlighted Macy’s plans to close almost 70 stores and lay off 10,000 workers, while Sears, was doubtful that it could stay in business.
All of this brought my shophouse childhood back to me, with its pleasures of being a Broad Street kid watched over by the merchants between Curtis and Cooper Streets and the excitement of Christmas and Father’s Day shopping. But I also remembered what it was like when my father lost his business, his identity, and a good bit of his income. And I recalled what Broad Street looked like the last time I drove through my hometown – a shattering scene of tatoo parlors, bars, and vacant, decrepit buildings where once commerce and friendship flourished.
“Change is the only reality,” a Greek philosopher once said. I’ve lived long enough to realize the wisdom of those words. We live in an ever-changing world in so many ways, a world with new and often troubling landscapes in which the future is full of uncertainty.
Witnessing those emerging landscapes, I’m very glad for my shophouse days.